Managing IT: Three Archetypes

I’ll tell you about this visualization from a recent internal conversation, but I may end up aggravating some career IT people out there. Yes, I have massively oversimplified things – but I’m trying to develop a broader understanding, and I think it’s a good first step.

The original question was “How do I manage IT?”, but it quickly morphed into “how can I drive / derive value from IT?” (note the powerful difference that a single letter makes – derive sounds sustainable). The question comes from folks that are not career IT, and too often fall into the common oversimplification that IT people speak another language and aren’t connected to the business. The reality is that your IT team may be speaking up to three different dialects – and it’s up to you to understand the differences.

ThreeAmigos
Click to enlarge …

What they Say, How they Think

I find that IT careers follow one of three basic pathways, three primary domains of thought and experience; the first step to managing IT is to have some understanding of not only what they think about, but how they think. I give the groups short names to keep the model simple – and make the pattern clear:

  • Network – Encompasses all things infrastructure; servers and storage, wires in the wall, telecom and data connections, desktop software and network operations. Folks in this group are engineering types, who like to talk about software versions and compatibility, and deal with all of the permutations & variations of devices and connections throughout the company. A good mental image could be the Capable Mechanic that can make anything happen. Projects, processes, and work effort strive to be predictable and structured – engineered, repeatable, scalable systems-thinking is the rule.
  • ERP – Not limited to SAP, Oracle, or their brethren – this group covers what I will call “transactional systems”; run-the-business systems that set price, take orders, control manufacturing and shipping, and take care of all the accounting. The group also includes systems like warehouse management, pricing approval, payroll, and engineering change control; these are “systems of record” expected to transact business accurately and at scale. A good mental image could be the Process Maven that dots the i’s and crosses the t’s, focused on accuracy and completeness.Projects are typically based on the method, to handle the complexity and get focus on the transactions, accuracy, and how everything flows traceably to the GL.
  • Web – A buzzword intended to cover the faster paced, communication intensive systems including web and mobile; it’s also meant to pull in major non-financial systems such as collaboration environments, multimedia creation, and data analytics & visualizations. A good mental image could be the Techie Creative, who focuses on design, the user experience, and the art / science of communication. Projects are often done ad hoc or worked in an iterative fashion, primarily because they end result is not clearly known at the beginning.

Of course, there are people who have backgrounds in two, sometimes all three, of these domains. But to effectively manage the team, it helps to understand how individuals are fundamentally predisposed to one of these ways of thinking.

Where is the Business Value?

The powerful question for the IT manager to ask is where and how someone from each of these domains will look to drive measurable business results.

If you are looking for bottom line impact – cut costs, improve productivity, reduce working capital – then talk to the Network and ERP folks. They are more focused finding ways to cut costs on hardware and software, or driving waste out processes like Order To Cash by streamlining the system(s) in place. They work in a linear fashion, going from A to B by following out a well laid plan with clearly defined objectives and metrics.

If you re looking for top line impact – increase revenue, or develop tight, information-based connections with your customers and your customers’ customers – then talk to the Web folks. They are used to iterative development, starting with wispy goals – and are generally better with communicating complexity.

Finding the Balance

Again – reality is not so black-and-white. ERP folks can contribute mightily to revenue-enhancing projects like breaking into new / emerging markets, or enabling process functionality that the competition is unable to match, and that would be unattainable without the help of high volume, always-on systems. Web folks can apply usability and information visibility to drive massive productivity gains. And nothing scales well (top line or bottom line) without being designed with a flexible, scalable, secure infrastructure underneath.

The key to understand is that it can be very difficult for one domain to think like the other – especially in the early, brain-storming stages of an initiative. Which IT person you bring into the initial conversation depends on the section of the P&L you are discussing.

And there clearly can be overlap, but when you find people that claim to have a strong mix of all the domains, ponder a moment  – and figure out a way to validate the claim. To start the conversation well, it’s helpful to define what their “primary domain” really is.

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James MacLennan

... is the Managing Partner at Maker Turtle LLC, a digital consultancy focused on creating value in ways that align with your strategy and drive engagement with employees, customers, and stakeholders. He is an active creator, providing thought leadership through on-line & print publications, and public speaking / keynotes.